Workers Vanguard No. 982

10 June 2011


NYC: Anti-Smoking Totalitarianism

Bloomberg Butt Out!

A pack of Marlboro Lights costs a cool $12 in Manhattan. Smokers have been driven from every office, worksite and public building, from bars and restaurants, left to shiver on the street in the winter and swelter in the sun of a New York summer. But this is not enough for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council, which have now banned smoking on beaches and in parks and plazas, imposing a $50 fine on anyone caught doing so. What’s next: home invasions of suspected smokers or Prohibition-style raids on private parties allowing smoking? This is already a reality elsewhere in the country, as in Belmont, California, where it is now illegal to smoke in your own home. As CBS News (28 January 2009) put it: “If apartment building neighbors complain about a smoker next door, officers can come knocking.”

Bloomberg’s latest assault on smokers has an extra twist: it’s meant to “be enforced by public pressure,” as well as by some Parks Department personnel (Daily News, 12 February). In this scenario, if some anti-smoking fanatic catches you “in the act” and lectures you to cease and desist, and if you respond by telling them to mind their own business, they can run to the nearest person in uniform. Imagine the possibilities: grouchy old people finking on teenagers having a good time (or vice versa), racist yahoos targeting minority families on a picnic, anti-sex bigots turning in gay people taking in some sun. It’s going to be open season on anyone who has the temerity to light up, with all the class, race and sex prejudices imbedded in this capitalist society. In a hot, humid summer in New York, this totalitarian mobilization of anti-smoking citizen brigades to act on behalf of the state is a recipe for violent attacks by bigots.

Already, discrimination against smokers in housing is open and rampant. A look at “no smoking” listings on Craigslist shows what smokers looking to rent apartments face. Official acts of repression and the vigilantism of the self-appointed morals police reinforce each other.

Even the New York Times (4 February), an enthusiastic supporter of the various bans imposed on smokers in the city, has, for its own reasons (like wanting to maintain healthy tourism income), recoiled from the latest ban, editorializing that the mayor and City Council had “overreached.” It noted that: “Instead of smoking on Brighton Beach, what does a smoker do—take a boat out 12 nautical miles into international waters?... They need to take a deep breath and remember that we tried prohibition 90 years ago. They called it a noble experiment. It turned into a civic disaster.” As we’ve noted before, during Prohibition nine states banned tobacco as well as booze. Is Gotham, once mythologized as the center of cosmopolitan culture where the lucky few led the high life with scandalous abandon, now to be remade in the image of Puritan Salem?

This latest intrusion by the state was well-prepared and in the making for some time. “Cleaning up” the city one civil right at a time, former mayor Ed Koch passed the “Clean Indoor Air Act,” opening the crusade to outlaw smoking in practically every indoor area imaginable. At the time we remarked: “How grotesque—New York City currently leads the U.S. in carbon monoxide pollution and barely escaped a multimillion-dollar cutoff of federal monies last year by the notoriously lax Environmental Protection Agency…and they want to blame the smoker for the rotten air quality in the Big Apple!” (“Warning: Anti-Smoking Crusade Dangerous to Your Rights,” WV No. 453, 20 May 1988). Then, Rudolph Giuliani and the Democratic Party-controlled City Council pushed through the smoking bans in restaurants, convention centers and work locations. Even outdoor cafés had to cordon off smokers, doubtless to keep the health-conscious from having their bracing intake of noxious traffic fumes contaminated by a whiff of their neighbors’ smoke. Other laws under Giuliani unleashed citywide dragnets against such “crimes” as drinking a beer on a stoop.

Overwhelmingly, it’s working people and the poor who are targeted when the state gets into people’s business. Take, for example, “sin taxes” on tobacco, which boost the cost of cigarettes by a factor of four or five. But the smoking bans, like the imposition of random drug and alcohol tests on workers, are also part and parcel of a broad-gauged campaign of regimenting the population, cracking down on workers’ rights, increasing productivity (those three-minute breaks add up!) and just simple random cruelty. Leading the charge to demonize smokers were the “me first” yuppies who infest most parts of Manhattan, jacking up rents and spreading the misery of whatever latest health fad they’ve adopted. The Hitler Youth used to be for clean living, too, as the Nazis raised the rallying call for “social purification” in the face of capitalist collapse and economic desperation.

Capitalist collapse and economic desperation will ring a bell for many in New York City, and throughout the country. As the jobless and homeless numbers swell, Wall Street swells have not given up their cigars and brandy, to be sure. And while the fat cats who brought the world economy to the present disaster flourish, billionaire Bloomberg’s extension of the smoking bans to outdoor summer gathering spots is especially vindictive toward the working class and black and Latino population of the city.

This is the same guy who tried to blame his snow removal fiasco on unionized workers during last winter’s blizzards (see “Beat Back Attack on Public Workers Unions!” WV No. 972, 21 January). Now he’s attacking firefighters as well, setting out a plan to shut down 20 engine companies. Taking a moment from his onslaught on the people who actually do an honest day’s work to keep this city running, Bloomberg evidently decided that his forerunners’ attacks on the rights of residents fell short on the smoking front. So now transit workers who are exposed to steel dust and bus and truck fumes day in and day out can’t have a smoke while spending their well-deserved day off at the beach; firemen who risk their lives in burning buildings can’t light up in a nearby plaza; the doctors, nurses and other hospital workers who fight to care for patients despite the health care giants’ cost-cutting aren’t allowed to take a smoke break in the park.

Enough! As we wrote in “Bourgeois Hypocrisy and ‘Health Fascism’: Anti-Smoking Tyranny” (WV No. 612, 9 December 1994):

“This creeping ‘health fascism’ has nothing to do with the public’s welfare. Medical evidence on the effects of ‘secondary smoke’ is inconclusive, and the obvious solution is to provide adequate ventilation for everybody. But that isn’t profitable, so of course it’s not even seriously proposed.… In the meantime, millions of people have been killed off through malnutrition, inadequate medical care and other effects of poverty, while billions of dollars are poured into building more prisons. In a rational, socialist society that money will be spent to find cures for cancer and other diseases, clean up the cities and provide decent housing, education and medical care for all.

“As far as we’re concerned, people ought to be able to read, eat, drink, smoke, and enjoy whatever consensual activities they want without cops, courts, employers and yuppie totalitarians sticking their noses in.”

While unemployment and hunger devastate working people’s lives and health, while killer cutbacks close hospitals and schools, while tenement housing makes poor kids sick with everything from asthma to lead poisoning, now Bloomberg proposes families won’t be able to use their food stamps for sugar-sweetened beverages. We militantly defend people’s right to imbibe still-legal substances, like steak, alcohol and cigarettes. We oppose all laws against so-called “crimes without victims”—drugs, gambling, prostitution. These laws threaten the privacy and rights of everyone and should be abolished. As Billie Holiday sang: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”

Even when the smoking bans applied mostly to indoor areas, there was no evidence that secondary smoke endangered nonsmokers. In the great (polluted) outdoors of New York City, this notion is simply ludicrous. Despite earlier absurd denials by the tobacco industry, it’s not a big secret that cigarettes aren’t healthy for those who use them. As for those who don’t, but are merely “exposed” to those who do, nothing has been scientifically proved to show that they suffer from secondhand smoke.

Much of the ballyhoo dates back to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report (Respiratory Effects of Passive Smoking, December 1992) that claimed to deduce a correlation—based on 31 extant studies—between exposure to smoke and a “19 percent” higher risk of lung cancer, particularly in the case of nonsmoking wives of smokers. Yet almost none of the results can be considered statistically significant. In fact, nine out of the 31 studies showed a negative correlation between secondary smoke and lung cancer. As for the 19 percent figure, a number this low in such a study could be explained by anything from pure chance to previous family history. For smokers, by comparison, where a connection is clear, the increased incidence of lung cancer was on the order of 2,000 percent. This concocted report, by the way, came from the same government agency that nine years later would tell residents of lower Manhattan that the air around Ground Zero was fit to breathe one week after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, even as the site was burning and releasing highly toxic particles.

Subsequent major studies that tried to find a health risk from secondhand smoke had to reach the same conclusion: there is no statistically meaningful correlation. Several sources have exposed the unscientific ways in which such studies are conducted in the first place, from not controlling for the effects of urban pollution to basing their conclusions on people’s estimates of how much secondhand smoke they have been exposed to over the course of their lives (see, for example, “The Bogus ‘Science’ of Secondhand Smoke,” Washington Post, 30 January 2007).

Karl Marx, who scientifically laid bare the workings of this vicious capitalist system, wrote concerning English liquor laws: “The classical saints of Christianity mortified their body for the salvation of the souls of the masses; the modern, educated saints mortify the bodies of the masses for the salvation of their own souls” (“Anti-Church Movement,” June 1855). Like Marx, we draw the conclusion that only the victory of proletarian revolution and establishment of workers rule will put an end to the hideous exploitation and oppression of the working masses. In the course of such a fight, it is necessary to struggle against the ever-growing regimentation of the population for greater profits and productivity, for cannon fodder in imperialist wars and occupations. Workers (including those who smoke): you have nothing to lose but your chains!